Of the many food scandals to have emerged in China in the last few years – fake eggs, pork made to taste like beef, exploding water melons and poisonous baby formula – stories about “gutter oil” are probably the most stomach-churning yet.
As its name suggests, the cooking oil in question is being retrieved from sewers, crudely reprocessed and then sold back to unwitting customers for a second appearance in the wok.
Gutter oil has simmered quietly as a public health concern for a while. But two events in the last fortnight have seen it boil over into a major public issue.
Last Tuesday, the Ministry of Public Security announced it had arrested 32 people working in 14 provinces in the largest crackdown yet on gutter oil production. It said it had found six illegal reprocessing plants and confiscated 100 tonnes of the oil – known as digouyou in Chinese.
Then on Monday a journalist working for a local television station in China’s central Henan province was found stabbed to death.
The 30 year-old Li Xiang had been investigating the production of gutter oil before he died.
Though there is no firm evidence that Li’s death was connected to his work, many see it as further sign of the extent of the problem, as well as evidence that the government is not doing enough to prevent gutter oil from making its way into the food chain.
The People’s Daily was one of a series of newspapers to highlight the issue.
“It could be said that the Ministry of Public Security cracking down on gutter oil production reflects its devotion to duty,” the newspaper reflected. “But we still need to ask: when illegal gutter oil traders were developing this kind of business in past years, where were the departments responsible for supervision of production and distribution?”
Another article published on China Comment’s website – a magazine run by the state news agency Xinhua – thought local government corruption might be at the root of the problem.
“It seems the manufacturers of gutter oil are confident and fearless. Why is that? Because they have the right support,” the article warned. “Ordinary citizens cannot provide that support…only people with titles like mayor, those who speak to a crowd , those who can take care of troubles can provide that kind of backing.”
China uses more than 22 million tonnes of cooking oil a year, and much of that ends up as surplus on dinner plates or in kitchen woks.
Then it is disposed of down the drain. But an estimated 10% of the waste is then retrieved, to reappear again to cook a second-round of dishes.
The trade has flourished in recent years, with the price of legitimately- produced cooking oil rising sharply thanks to inflation.
Recently WiC witnessed oil being extracted from a sewer in central Beijing, holding its nose while a mix of old food, chopsticks and toilet paper also came out in the mix.
Scientists say gutter oil is also regularly contaminated with a fungus called aflatoxin, which can contribute to the risk of liver cancer.
State media has also criticised the government for failing to devise a test for gutter oil’s usage, and has also suggested that more attention should be given to how best to dispose of used cooking oil, as well as how to recycle it for use in industry or transport.
Chinese netizens have been mulling over the latest revelations, some with a sense of anger, and others more with a sense of resignation.
One weibo user opted for black humour.“You can’t say Chinese people are not environmental. We recycle 2 million tonnes of gutter oil though our own veins every year,” he wrote. However, jokes aside, the prevalence of gutter oil means any frequent visitor to China may have already unwittingly eaten food cooked in it…
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